Like a Virgin

In the last couple of years I’ve changed my tune about Born Again Virginity, Revirginization, Second Virginity—or whatever other term you’d like to use to indicate a reclaiming of virginity after a person has had sex of some form or another. I too, used to be skeptical about the idea and its practitioners (so to speak), but never to the degree employed in the kind of commentary of MSNBC’s bitterly sarcastic report “Born-again Virgins Claim to Rewrite the Past” that blatantly makes fun of those who claim membership.

I make it a rule to abstain from making fun of that which I do not fully understand, and to refrain from being intolerant and dismissive about that which may carry tremendous meaning for someone else—especially when those other somebodies happen to be primarily young adult women.

During a study I conducted about the relationship between “sex and the soul” among America’s college students (okay, full disclosure: “Sex and the Soul” is the name of my new book, forthcoming in April from Oxford University Press on the subject), I met a number of evangelical Christian young women who had “repackaged their virginity” (as one woman called the process). I wonder how dismissive and cynical people would be after hearing some of their stories? There was nothing funny about these young women’s sexual identities. Yes, my feminist radar went up and pushed me to simply critique what, at least on the surface, sounded a lot like a good ole patriarchal double standard (I didn’t meet any born againvirgin young men) that corners women into denying sexual desire and teaches them to regret sexual experiences.

But I did my best to put that feminist critical urge aside for a moment in order to truly listen and consider for one reason and one reason only:

The stories I heard from these women were stories of empowerment, stories of not only reclaiming virginity but reclaiming self-esteem, restoring a full place in religious community, with God, and, in some cases, a surprising and unique sexual authority among their peers (they had experiences to share and could share them without fear of rejection). Reclaiming virginity allowed some young women to admit their sexual experiences and pasts to others in the middle of communities where many young people felt afraid to acknowledge their sexual behaviors for fear of losing friends, respect, and even their ability to stay in a community.

Granted, this particular benefit of born again virginity highlights a religious system obviously oppressive and, for many, broken when it comes to the reality of young adult members successfully navigating expectations of extreme religious restraint prior to marriage. But to simply say (what I’ve heard some people remark), “well these women should simply get out of this oppressive situation by leaving their faith tradition” is no answer either. That requires young people to give up their religious selves in favor of their sexual selves and presumes there is no possibility of reconciliation on the horizon. And reclaiming virginity, by the way, was also a rather difficult process and not simply something decided on a whim one day. One woman I interviewed explained how it took her a full two years to “repackage” her virginity and described all the many and diverse steps she took before she began to call herself a virgin again. To call her proud of this effort and its result is an understatement. She fairly glowed.

So I began to see Born Again Virginity as a rather creative, useful, empowering category that some women were using to “come out” to friends and peers about sexual behavior, while still retaining a place of pride in their traditions.

I also began to wonder, as I traversed the country and interviewed college students who do not claim membership in evangelical Christian communities, about how useful a category Born Again Virginity might be for the astounding number of young women who feel tremendous regret and shame about their sexual pasts (it was disturbing and distressing to find so much regret, rather than empowerment, in their stories). The predominant attitude I saw among these young women was ambivalence about their sexual behaviors and pasts; a kind of giving up that led them to an almost “well, I’ve already had sex and therefore I’m ruined so I may as well just continue having sex even if it doesn’t make me happy” kind of attitude. The possibility of Born Again Virginity wasn’t even on their horizon.

In religiously unaffiliated communities many young women feel powerless to stop having sex once they’ve started. And while I am well aware that the concept of Born Again Virginity is problematic, I can’t help wondering if (in the imperfect communities where the double standard is alive and well whether we like it or not) these sexually exhausted, ambivalent young women might not find empowerment in reclaiming their virginity, too.